All’s Quiet in Dandong

23 Dec

Korean traders and other people doing business with North Koreans across the Yalu river are waiting for end of the mourning period for the Dear Leader, to find out if economic activity will return to normal.

From its perch on the western bank of the Yalu river, Dandong boasts a unique front-row view of the long-running horror show that is North Korea. Though the distance to the Korean side is a mere 800 metres, there is not all that much to see. In daylight, a few idle smokestacks loom above a handful of dilapidated factories and other structures. Just near the Korean end of a bridge joining the banks sits a forlorn and motionless Ferris wheel. The night-time view may be even more revealing. There is near total darkness, with only a few lit bulbs scattered along the entire length of the riverfront.

But even with this close-up view, the steady flow of people and goods across the Friendship Bridge that leads to the North Korean town of Sinuiju, and a sizeable North Korean presence in their midst, the people of Dandong have scarcely more insight than anyone else into what might be wrought by the death of Mr Kim.

They do, however, have more cause for concern. Trade and tourism make significant contributions to Dandong’s economy. According to Chinese statistics, bilateral trade between China and North Korea in 2010 rose nearly 30% year-on-year, to $3.47 billion, a record high. As much as 60% of that trade is thought to move through Dandong. The official announcement of Mr Kim’s death led to the prompt shuttering of Dandong’s many North Korean-run restaurants, shops and trading companies.

The hope among the many people here who derive their livelihoods from dealings with the neighbours across the river is that things will return to normal with the end of the official mourning period after Mr Kim’s funeral December 28th.

The fear is that they have no way of gauging the odds, especially with the leadership transfer now under way to a largely untested man in his 20s, Kim Jong Un, the deceased despot’s third son. “Anything could happen. It’s a very strange place, and a very strange situation to have such a young person taking over,” said the Chinese manager of a trading company who makes frequent visits to North Korea.

The effects of any turmoil in North Korea—whether in the form of military tension, unrest, or a swell of refugees—would be keenly felt here. But at least in the first two days after the announcement of Mr Kim’s death, an orderly calm prevailed. There was no sign of any extra police or military presence. Traffic bustled along as usual through Dandong’s busy streets, while in the riverside park pensioners flew kites and peddlers sold trinkets and souvenirs. The only way your correspondent managed to hear any wailing and gnashing of teeth was by tuning his car radio to AM 657, a North Korean station, which alternated between sombre music and a grieving, distraught announcer.

Despite rumours about an imminent shutdown of all cross-border traffic, a stream of vehicles, including both large cargo trucks and light vans, made its way across from the Chinese side on Wednesday morning. The situation was much the same in the Yanbian border region, hundreds of kilometres north-east of Dandong, according to local residents and Western diplomats who had been poking around the area for information.

Outside the consulate, a North Korean trader who refused to identify himself or his company said it was only appropriate in a time of mourning to suspend normal trading activities. But, he hastened to add, things would certainly return to normal. Dandong residents can only hope his prediction bears out. Until then, they can at least take consolation in a boom in the flower business.

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